“Ghost Ships” That Carry Live Souls

Last week, two separate ships packed full of Middle Eastern migrants were found floating off the Italian coast, having been abandoned by their crews:

The cargo ship Ezadeen, which set sail under a Sierra Leone flag from a Turkish port this week, was discovered drifting without a captain 40 nautical miles from the Italian coast. Italian coastguards were forced to intervene to prevent a disaster and possibly save the lives of the estimated 450 people on board, many of them thought to be Syrian refugees. … The Ezadeen was the second vessel in four days to be found sailing without a crew. Earlier in the week, 800 migrants on the Blue Sky M, a Moldovan-registered ship, were rescued by Italian coastguards when it was discovered sailing without an active crew five miles off the coast. The two incidents have left observers of migrant routes in the Mediterranean fearing that people-smugglers have found a new and ruthless way of working in the area despite a recent decision to scale back Italian rescue operations.

The plight of the Blue Sky M and Ezadeen point to a new tactic by migrant smugglers in the Mediterranean. It’s less awful than deliberately shipwrecking them, as smugglers did on one voyage in September, drowning hundreds of refugees. Still, these “ghost ships” underscore the danger of the Mediterranean crossing and the desperation of those who make it. Barbie Latza Nadeau revisits an interview from December with Moutassem Yazbek, a Syrian refugee who had made the crossing last year and explained how the smuggling system works:

In many cases, he says, the smuggler kingpins hire refugees with seafaring experience to work as crewmembers on the ships in exchange for discounted passage. They are not the actual traffickers, Yazbek says, so generally the other refugees protect their identity. On his boat that came into Sicily three weeks ago, Yazbek says the refugee “crew members” hired by the smugglers were never exposed. Instead the refugees told the authorities that they abandoned the ship at sea, when in reality the men who piloted the ship blended in and were treated no differently than the other refugees.

“We weren’t protecting the smugglers—we were protecting the poor people that helped the ship to reach that stage,” he says. “Those people are refugees who worked as a crew to save some money. In my opinion I think that the smugglers are real criminals. If not, they wouldn’t make the prices so high; they would accept a smaller margin. I think they are anything but heroes.” Frontex estimates that the smugglers on the two large cargo ships that arrived in Italy last week cleared more than $3 million after the price of the aging vessel was subtracted.

But Melanie McDonagh isn’t sure how much sympathy she has for these particular refugees:

The Syrians now arrived in Italy paid between $4,000 and $6,000 for their passage. Many of those on deck were young and seem relatively fit. We are not talking here about the huddled masses, the human debris of the Lebanese or Jordanian refugee camps, but the more prosperous of those displaced by the conflicts in Syria and Eritrea.

If we, Europe, were to take the neediest refugees it might not be these. And if their efforts are rewarded with permanent residency in Europe, ultimately with citizenship, and in the case of those who get to Sweden, with the right to bring their families with them, then the gamble will have paid off. They have jumped the queue ahead of those perhaps more deserving of refuge abroad. They made a rational calculation about the terrible risks of going to sea with criminal traffickers and, more fortunate than those who died during the year crossing the Mediterranean (an estimated 3,500), they got lucky.

Meanwhile, Patrick Kingsley notes that the “Arab Spring” has generated the world’s largest wave of migrations since World War II:

Wars in Syria, Libya and Iraq, severe repression in Eritrea, and spiralling instability across much of the Arab world have all contributed to the displacement of around 16.7 million refugees worldwide. A further 33.3 million people are “internally displaced” within their own war-torn countries, forcing many of those originally from the Middle East to cross the lesser evil of the Mediterranean in increasingly dangerous ways, all in the distant hope of a better life in Europe.

“These numbers are unprecedented,” said Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration. “In terms of refugees and migrants, nothing has been seen like this since world war two, and even then [the flow of migration] was in the opposite direction.”

Peak Islamism?

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Looking over Arab Barometer data from the past decade, Michael Robbins and Mark Tessler find that throughout the Arab world, “support for democracy remains high but support for political Islam has decreased” while “Islamic democrats – those who support both democracy and political Islam – are becoming scarcer across the region”:

Arab publics continue overwhelmingly to support democracy. In all but one country surveyed, three-quarters or more of respondents in the third wave of surveys (late 2012-2014) agree or strongly agree with the statement “A democratic system may have problems, yet it is better than other political systems.” …

Support for political Islam is substantially lower. In no country do more than half of respondents say religious leaders should have influence over government decisions.

It is often far less support, including just 34 percent in Algeria, 27 percent in Tunisia, 20 percent in Egypt and 9 percent in Lebanon. Moreover, support for political Islam declined over the past decade. Algeria has witnessed the most dramatic decline, with support for political Islam falling from 60 percent in 2006 to just 34 percent in 2013. A similar decline has occurred in Egypt, where 37 percent supported political Islam in June 2011 compared to 18 percent in April 2013, a 19-point decrease. Most other countries witnessed a similar decline, including Palestine (-15 points), Iraq (-11), Lebanon (-9) and Yemen (-7).

In Saudi Arabia, Caryle Murphy profiles the “post-Islamist generation” of young people who are fed up with religious politics:

Young Saudis “are looking for individual freedom and rights, not for religion,” said Mohammed al-Abdulkareem, an assistant professor of Islamic jurisprudence at Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University, a conservative religious university in Riyadh. This “big change” began after the Arab revolutions, he said. “It’s clear to me that from the Arab Spring, people discovered the ideas of human rights and individual freedom and that these ideas were more effective and more successful to get a change in their governments,” he said. “Why would you expect that people would return to religious trends when … these trends and religious institutions didn’t pay attention to human rights and the freedom of the people?” …

The trend is encapsulated in a 27-year-old Saudi woman I met in Riyadh. Raised in a traditionally religious family, she wears the Islamic headscarf and is religiously devout — but she dislikes how her government has used her faith for its own ends. “Islam came to free people. Islam didn’t come to put them in jail,” she said. “And the government uses it to put people in jail and under their control. So they control us by Islam…. That makes a lot of people not even want Islam.”

Arabs And Democracy: It’s Complicated

Lindsay Benstead takes a second look at poll data from the Arab world showing widespread support for democratic governance:

According to polls from 2006 to 2008, at least 80 percent of residents in Yemen, the Palestinian territories, Algeria and Jordan agreed or strongly agreed that, “Democracy may have its problems, but it is the best form of government.” This figure exceeded 90 percent in Morocco and Lebanon.

Yet, in a recent article published in “Democratization,” I revisited these Arab Barometer data and found that support for democracy is not as widespread as received wisdom suggests. I found that 27 percent of citizens of six countries surveyed by the Arab Barometer believed that democracy is best but unsuitable for their country. The reasons citizens saw democracy as unsuitable stem not from religion or economic modernization – the focus of many studies of Arab public opinion – but from concerns about economic problems and political instability that could accompany free elections.

Why this matters:

First, scholars have long suggested that public support for democracy is a key driver of democratization. So, it is important for the long-term development of democracy that citizens have confidence in democracy as the best way to achieve a better life. Second, the conditions that appear to threaten public confidence in democracy in the Arab world – instability, violence and upheaval – are an unfortunate byproduct of the transitions taking place in the region. And, this appears to be hampering citizen confidence in democracy.

On a related subject, Steven Cook puzzles over the Egyptian “liberals” who now back the coup government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi:

We have all come to believe in the alleged axiom of Egyptian politics: Faced with a choice between democratically elected Islamists and the authoritarianism of the military, the liberals will choose the officers, revealing themselves to be not so liberal after all. That seems self-evident, but liberal supporters of the post-July 2013 political process argue that the coup and their support for it were actually quintessentially liberal. To them, the military’s intervention precluded Egypt’s slide into a new authoritarianism of a particular religious bent from which there could be no hope for the survival of liberalism. These folks also make the case that their (mostly Western) critics mistakenly fuse liberal principles and democracy, failing to recognize that democracy can bring about both its own demise as well as that of liberalism.

Moreover, the first concern of many of those Egyptian intellectuals who opposed Mubarak but support Sisi is preserving and advancing liberal ideals, which is more important—for now—than the ballot box. It’s an interesting and informed argument, steeped as it is in John Locke. Yet the argument seems like a leap of faith. It is hard to imagine that as Egypt’s authorities go about re-engineering the political institutions of the state to ensure that something like the January 25 uprising never happens again that they are simultaneously creating an environment where liberalism can not only be sustained, but also thrive.